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The Queen’s speech and social reform: where do we go from here?

Matthew Kaye, Consultant writes

David Cameron used the Queen’s Speech this week to put forward a programme of social reform, including changes to prisons, schools and adoption. Headline measures included:

– Prison governors being given more freedom to improve education and health provision in a bid to cut reoffending rates in a prison and courts reform bill.

– Schools will only be forced to become academies in poorer-performing areas.

– A children and social work bill encouraging local authorities to prioritise adoption over short-term foster placements for children in care.

But there appears to be confusion at the heart of the programme over whether devolving power from the centre or imposing power from the centre is the best path to social change.

The first issue is over compulsion. In the Budget George Osborne announced that all schools must become academies by 2020 or have official plans to do so by 2022. Since then, the government has had to row back in the face of a potential revolt from backbenchers, with academy status for all schools now an aspiration rather than a compulsory change. This raises the important point of whether reforms are best delivered through compulsion or a more flexible approach. The government clearly believes that academisation is the only real way to ensure every child “has access to a world-class education”. On prison reform, however, it was announced that some prisons could set their own rules and budgets and decide themselves how best to rehabilitate inmates.

Linked to the academies agenda is the crucial debate about the best vehicle for delivering social reforms: central government or more autonomous local authorities. The government itself continues to adopt a mixed approach.

There is a clear appetite to devolve powers but only if there is an elected mayor. In the Queen’s speech it was announced that further powers will be devolved to directly elected mayors, including governing bus services. Mayor-led authorities will be given the freedom to decide how often buses should run, how much tickets should cost and even what bus services should be called. Local authorities will also be allowed to retain business rates, giving them “more freedom to invest in local communities”.

However, the new sugar tax takes an interventionist approach to achieving the desired goal of a reduction in childhood obesity. The proceeds from the levy on high-sugar drinks will be put into school’s sports funding.

Would a reduction in childhood obesity be more or less likely if the government gave local authorities the autonomy to spend the funds on other schemes?

There is no clear answer at the moment. Our work into the fragmentation of funding for local economic growth for the LGA has found that, in many instances, local authorities continue to have limited involvement in the funding process.

The question we should be asking going forward is: would the government be more likely to achieve its social objectives if local authorities were given more influence?

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